Lance Johnson knows he has something special at Minnehaha Academy. His boys’ basketball squad is very talented as well as long and athletic.
The Class 2A defending state champion Redhawks are also very competitive. They want to know exactly where they stand among the state’s best, and that includes the Class 4A and 3A powers.
Minnehaha Academy isn’t alone in that pursuit. Minneapolis North (Class 2A), DeLaSalle (Class 3A) and Orono (Class 3A) also seek the opportunity to square off against larger schools.
There isn’t a disparity between those four teams and the upper echelon in Class 4A this season. Fans will have the chance to judge for themselves, starting right away this week through the middle of February. The state’s best will clash in nonconference matchups, tournaments or showcases.
“I have been pleasantly pleased that so many Class 4A and 3A schools are willing to play us despite our school enrollment,” Johnson said. “Minnehaha Academy has always had a tradition of playing tough competition based on our personnel. It happens to coincide with an influx of talent that we think can handle 4A and 3A competition.”
Leading that influx of talent is 6-5 sophomore point guard Jalen Suggs. He is currently ranked No. 4 in the Class of 2020 by Rivals.com.
To put that into perspective, Apple Valley senior point guard Tre Jones is ranked No. 7 in the Class of 2018. Jones is headed for Duke. The two will go head-to-head in a nationally televised nonconference matchup Thursday at Apple Valley. The Eagles are the Class 4A defending state champion.
“We’ve been playing across the country all of our lives,” Suggs said. “Now we get to play for the names on the front of our jerseys.”
It’s just one, although a very large one, matchup this season between the heavyweights of the top three classes in the state.
“I believe our team can be extremely special,” Suggs said. “We are all very competitive, and love to play against the best.”
Half of the Redhawks’ 26 games this season are against larger-class schools. They play seven Class 4A schools, five Class 3A teams and Stevens Point of Wisconsin, a large school in our neighboring state. Johnson’s squad will also face Class 2A powers Minneapolis North and Caledonia.
“I’ve told our coach that he did a pretty good job with our schedule,” Suggs said. “It will push us to get better every day. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Minneapolis North coach Larry McKenzie applauds the Redhawks’ schedule. He tries to do likewise with his Polars. They are the Class 1A two-time defending state champion, and make the jump up to Minnehaha Academy’s classification this season.
“Minnehaha Academy has a really tough schedule,” McKenzie said. “And, you see that competitiveness on our schedule, too.”
The Polars will play Apple Valley before their showdown with Minnehaha Academy at the end of January. They also have the likes of Hopkins and Eden Prairie on their schedule.
“It’s kind of like college basketball where the mid-majors have become more competitive,” McKenzie said. “There are more teams across the metro area proving they are more competitive. This is a tribute to the coaches at all levels who are building great programs and just not teams.”
Orono coach Barry Wohler falls in that category. His Spartans just might have the toughest schedule in Class 3A, which includes the likes of Cretin-Derham Hall and Hopkins in Class 4A and Minnehaha Academy.
“There are great games to go to every week” Wohler said. “It’s great for the kids and fans, but it’s more stressful for the coaches. You hope it makes you battle ready.”
And, it’s great for those who understand the big picture.
“The kids want to play the best competition they can get,” McKenzie said. “There are two seasons, regular and post. What matters most happens in March, and your coaches who have built strong, consistent programs recognize that.”
There are plenty of premier tilts between the Class 4A, 3A and 2A powers this season.
Thursday, Dec. 7
• Minnehaha Academy at Apple Valley, 7 p.m. (ESPNU)
Saturday, Dec. 9
Breakdown Tip Off Classic
At Hopkins Lindbergh Center
• Minnehaha Academy vs. Park Center, 4:30 p.m.
• DeLaSalle vs. Hopkins, 6 p.m.
• Cretin-Derham Hall vs. Orono, 7:30 p.m.
• Apple Valley vs. Minneapolis North, 9 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 29
Granite City Classic
At St. Cloud Apollo
• Apple Valley vs. Park Center, 8:30 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 30
Granite City Classic
At St. Cloud Apollo
• Minnehaha Academy vs. Orono, 5:30 p.m.
At St. Cloud State
• Apple Valley vs. Cretin-Derham Hall, 8:30 p.m.
Tuesday, Jan. 9
• Hopkins at Orono, 7 p.m.
Thursday, Jan. 25
• Minneapolis North vs. Minnehaha Academy at Mounds Park Academy, 7 p.m.
Saturday, Feb. 10
• DeLaSalle at Cretin-Derham Hall, 7 p.m.
Tuesday, Feb. 13
• Hopkins at Minneapolis North, 7 p.m.